Imagine if your favorite workout gear, whether that be a set of New Balance running kicks or an Under Armour tank top, was smart enough to detect sweat during a workout. Or better yet, imagine if your clothes had ventilation flaps that opened up as soon as it sensed heat coming off your body. Now let’s take it one step further: Picture yourself taking a late night jog around the neighborhood and the moment you broke a sweat, fabric in your tank top lit up while running alongside traffic.

Moisture-Responsive Fabric

Does this high-tech breathable workout suit sound like something Tom Cruise would wear in Minority Report? Well, after researchers from MIT designed a moisture-responsive fabric made from live cells, ventilating sweatsuits may be handing on sporting good shelves sooner than anyone could ever fathom. This is a true case of technology surpassing our wildest imagination.

Made out of microbial cells that shrink and expand with humidity, a team of MIT researchers has designed a breathable moisture-responsive workout suit. In addition, they have successfully engineered a cell-lined running shoe capable of pushing out moisture during a training session. These tiny ventilation flaps are covered in tiny cells that act as sensors when the body begins producing heat and sweat. According to the study, the flaps are driven open when the athlete works up a sweat and closed when the body cools off. As an added bonus, the team at MIT equipped these intuitive cell sensors with a protein element that causes them to light up in response to humidity.

MIT’s bioLogic Project

“We can combine our cells with genetic tools to introduce other functionalities into these living cells,” says Wen Wang, the lead author of the study and former research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab and Department of Chemical Engineering. “We use fluorescence as an example, and this can let people know you are running in the dark. In the future, we can combine odor-releasing functionality through genetic engineering. So maybe after going to the gym, the shirt can release a nice smelling odor.”

Led by both Wen Wang and Lining Yao, the bioLogic project is part of MIT’s Tangible Media Group and is inspired by living things in nature. After hypothesizing that natural shape-shifting organisms such as yeast, bacteria, and other microbial cells might be the perfect starting point for constructing responsive fabrics, the team started experimenting. After deciding to work with a non-pathogenic strain of E.Coli, which is highly responsive to changes in humidity, the MIT researchers integrated a green fluorescent protein enabling the cell to light up when sensing moisture. As for making the fabric, Wang and Yao followed these steps:

1. Using a cell-printed method, they developed sheets of rough, natural latex.

2. After layering the sheets of latex, the fabric was placed on a hot plate to dry – causing the cells to shrink, and the latex layer to curl up.

3. When the same fabric was exposed to steam, the cells began to light up and expand – causing the latex to flatten out.

Shape-Shifting Cells

Designing the breathable workout suit involved weaving the cell-lined latex flaps into place and tailoring the suit around the body’s sweatiest areas. “People may think heat and sweat are the same, but in fact, some areas like the lower spine produce lots of sweat but not much heat,” Yao says. “We redesigned the garment using a fusion of heat and sweat maps to, for example, make flaps bigger where the body generates more heat.”

After designing the suit, it was time to test it out on actual participants. From the study group to the team leaders, the fabric had an immediate reaction. After five minutes of heavy cardio conditioning, the suit’s flaps opened up at the exact moment when the subjects started feeling warm and sweaty. According to the sensor readings, the flaps removed sweat from the body and lowered skin temperature. “It felt like I was wearing an air conditioner on my back,” Wang said.

Sweat-Detecting Sneakers

With the same moisture-response cell-technology integrated inside running shoes, MIT researchers focused on the sweat coming from the bottom of the foot. “In the beginning, we thought of making the flaps on the top of the shoe, but we found people don’t normally sweat on the top of their feet,” Wang said. “But they sweat a lot on the bottom of their feet, which can lead to diseases like warts. So we thought, is it possible to keep your feet dry and avoid these diseases?”

The end result: sneaker flaps that opened up and illuminated during sweat producing workouts and in dry conditions, the flaps closed up.

With the hopes of someday commercializing the technology, the MIT research group will certainly turn some heads with their moisture-responsive ventilation flaps. From sportswear companies to textile manufacturers, the application is widespread whether it’s integrated into our workout gear or woven into our bed sheets.

Source: MIT News